By Stan Paul
From President Obama and the Pope to venture capitalists and billionaires, “everyone is talking about inequality,” said Northeastern University professor Barry Bluestone in his Feb. 25 talk at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“This is new,” he added.
Bluestone’s presentation, “The Great U-Turn: Inequality in America 25 Years Later,” launched the Luskin School’s 2014 FEC Public Lecture Series. The events, which follow the theme of “Economic Inequality Through Multiple Lenses,” are sponsored by UCLA Luskin’s Faculty Executive Council, the Center for the Study of Inequality at UCLA Luskin, the Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, and the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, among others.
While inequality in the United States is certainly not a new subject, focus on disparities among Americans and their relative freedom to pursue the American Dream has sharpened recently. In addition to a historical view of inequality in the U.S., Bluestone, director of the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern, provided new data that showed the situation has changed since he first reported his findings in the 1980s.
Among the headings of his presentation were insights such as: “Where inequality is greatest, so is the cost of living,” (Los Angeles was recently ranked ninth most unequal on a list American cities), and “Income Gains at the Top Dwarf Those of Low- and Middle-Income Households.” He presented data showing the percent change in real after-tax income since 1979 that resembled a craggy, but ever-growing mountain range of prosperity, culminating in a 201 percent increase for the top 1 percent. But, the categories of the next 19 percent, the middle 60 percent and the bottom 20 percent appear as relatively flat foothills in comparison.
As an explanation for the causes behind the divergent fortunes of the haves and the have-nots, Bluestone referenced an Agatha Christie novel to show that no one cause is to blame. Under the heading “Murder on the Inequality Express,” he ran through a top-ten list of suspects from technology to globalization to decreased union representation to trade deficits.
One chart, named “Income Growth and the Changing Distribution of Family Income,” came with a dour subtitle, “From Growth with Greater Equity…to Stagnation and Inequality.” Following World War II and decades of growth in income generally among most Americans, the “Great U-Turn” began in the 1970s, according to Bluestone, who used that term with his co-author Bennett Harrison as the title of their 1988 book. In the preface of the paperback version of that book, the authors wrote, “When we first wrote The Great U-Turn, we began with a simple and fundamental premise: what is essential to the American Dream is the promise of an ever-improving standard of living. Americans expect to find and hold higher-paying jobs as they get older, and they expect their children to fare even better…”
Prof. Bluestone put the “current concern about growing economic inequality into some historical perspective. He and Bennett were pioneers in this field,” commented Urban Planning professor Paul Ong, who directs the Center for the Study of Inequality at UCLA Luskin.
Counter to society’s expectations of ever-increasing prosperity, Bluestone showed evidence that family income mobility has stagnated in the decades since the 1970s. While expressing pessimism about any significant changes for “current generation income equality,” Professor Bluestone said that intergenerational improvement — or the prospects for children born into low-income families to advance to a higher level of wealth – might have more luck if major changes are made.
Bluestone suggested that universal quality prenatal care for all children and more spending on early childhood education would be the best investment to address the inequality gap. By better matching educational spending to the time when a child’s brain undergoes its period of most dramatic growth, the U-turn could be reversed, Bluestone said.
How much would this cost? “A fortune, but it would be worth it,” he said.
The next FEC Public Lecture, scheduled for April 29, will feature William “Sandy” Darity of Duke University who will discuss “Race, Ethnicity and Economic Inequality.”